Three city playgrounds were damaged in fires – likely set by arsons, police said – in little more than a week. Laurel Police and city officials are working to find those people that set the fires as they make plans to rebuild the damaged play equipment.
The first fire caused about $150,000 in damages to Discovery Community Park Sunday afternoon, March 3. The second fire, discovered around 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 8, damaged portions of a playground slide at Granville Gude Park, which surrounds Laurel Lakes. Police arrested two juveniles in that fire, who were charged with arson by Prince George's County Fire investigators.
A third fire on Monday, March 11 had the playground equipment at Emancipation Community Park on Eighth Street engulfed in flames around 4:30 p.m. That fire, which melted the plastic parts of the equipment but left the upright structures such as the swing set intact, caused between $80,000 and $100,00 in damages, city officials said.
As Laurel Police continue to investigate all three fires, it is still unclear if the fires are related but they are all being investigated as acts of arson.
Laurel City Spokesman Pete Piringer said Tuesday that Laurel Police are pursuing some "good leads" on the fire investigation at Discovery Community Park, but that they are looking for more information on all three fires.
"We are looking for the community to step up with information," Piringer said.
The city is now offering a reward up to $5,000 to anyone who provides information on either of the three fires that leads to an arrest and conviction. Anyone with information call the Laurel Police Department's tip line at 301-498-7645 or the Prince George's County fire tip line at 301-77-arson.
Damages from the three fires total about $250,000.
Insurance will cover the costs of clearing away the damaged equipment and rebuilding at the three parks, but the parks will be partially closed during the restoration.
Volunteers step forward
Discovery Community Park, which received the most damage, is located at Harrison Drive and Greenhill Avenue in the Fairlawn neighborhood, and is one of the most popular parks in the city, according to Piringer.
The March 3 wind-fed fire destroyed equipment in the south area of the park, where the ground is covered with rubber material, and a three-person plastic slide melted into a puddle of plastic, causing what Piringer called "significant damage."
Laurel Parks and Recreation Director Mike Lhotsky said the repair costs break down to around $19,000 to remove the damaged equipment and the rubber ground surface, and around $135,000 to reinstall the equipment and new rubber ground cover. The city had insurance coverage for $200,00 for Discovery Community Park, he said.
"It will take about $154,000 to get it back up to snuff," Lhotsky said, and should be reopened by summer.
Discovery Community Park was built in 1993, with volunteers providing most of the labor in a barn raising-type build day. Lhotsky said the park was renovated and expanded three years ago, adding more play and seating areas, swings and a slide.
In the days after the fire, Lhotsky said, city officials received phone calls from residents and small businesses, asking if they needed any help in rebuilding the park.
"It's good to get those calls," Lhotsky said.
Granville Gude Park damage 'minimal'
Laurel Police officers on patrol discovered Friday's playground fire at Granville Gude Park around 8:30 p.m., and several Laurel Lakes residents called the city with reports of a group of youths starting a fire at the park.
When police arrived at the park, located off Mulberry Street, they saw several youths running away from the playground and a small fire under a tube-shaped slide. Piringer said one officer chased the youths, catching up and apprehending them, while the second officer used a fire extinguisher in their police cruiser to put out the fire.
Two juveniles were arrested and charged with arson-related offenses, Piringer said.
The damage at Granville Gude Park was minimal; several sections of the slide were burned and melted.
City officials closed the slide and by Monday, someone had posted a printed-out notice that read in part "This is the result of stupid teens in our community, our children don't deserve it."
Lhotsky said it costs around $200 to replace each damaged section of the slide, so costs were not as high as repairing Discovery Community Park's damage and would be around $1,000.
Two fires are similar
The fire at Emancipation Community Park Monday was the third playground fire at a city park in little more than a week.
Several Laurel residents saw the fire and clouds of smoke at the playground in the Grove community and called Laurel Police. When Laurel Volunteer Fire Department units arrived, the playground was "fully engulfed in flames," Piringer said.
After the fire was knocked out, wooden structures at the playground were still standing but plastic parts of the equipment, such as a climbing wall and bright purple slide, were burned off and melted.
Lhotsky estimated the damages to be between $80,000 to $100,000.
Emancipation Community Park is adjacent to the parking lot of Laurel Library and near the former site of the Laurel Grove School, where Laurel's African-American students were enrolled from 1930 until 1962.
The three-acre park is expected to lose about one acre when the library is rebuilt, a project scheduled to begin in October. Plans by the library project's developers, Grimm and Parker architects, include adding an outdoor amphitheater to the park.
While no definite link between the three fires has been established, investigators are seeing similarities between the Discovery Community Park fire and the Emancipation Park fire, Piringer said. Both received significant damage, were set in the afternoon and resulted in the melted plastic and rubber ground coverings.
"But we do believe all three (fires) were set," Piringer said.
Piringer said investigators are also looking into available surveillance video and if there were any witnesses who could provide information.
Laurel Police have beefed up their patrols of all the city parks, and Public Works and Parks and Recreation employees have been instructed to "keep an eye out, too," Piringer said.
And with reward money being offered, residents are encouraged to also keep an eye out.